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Covid-19: Educational Settings

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding schools in national lockdown.

The last thing any Education Secretary wants to do is announce that schools will close[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.], and this is not a decision that the Government ever wanted to take. I would like to reassure everyone that our schools have not suddenly become unsafe, but limiting the number of people who attend them is essential when the covid rates are climbing as they are now. We must curb the escalating cases of covid throughout the country and prevent the national health service from being overwhelmed. That is why, today, I am setting out the contingency plans I had prepared but had hoped would never have to implement. I would like to thank all of our teachers, our education staff and our social workers for all that they have been doing to keep children and young people safe and learning.

During the lockdown, early years settings remain open nationally to all, providing vital early education and childcare. Schools will be open too for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Those at university will predominantly study online, although there are a small number of exceptions, including those studying medicine, healthcare and education.

Unwelcome though this latest lockdown is—and I am very conscious of the real challenges that parents are facing with their children at home—we are far better placed to cope with it than we were last March. We are now better prepared to deliver online learning. This is an important step forward in supporting children to make the progress with their education that they so desperately need. We will also do what we can to help their parents, and I thank all those parents and carers who are having to step up once more to take on the challenge of home learning.

We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. We expect schools to provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. If parents feel their child’s school is not providing suitable remote education, they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher, and, failing that, report the matter to Ofsted. Ofsted will inspect schools of any grade where it has serious concerns about the quality of remote education being provided.

We have significantly stepped up the digital support we are providing to schools and parents. The fantastic Oak National Academy continues to provide video lessons for all ages across all subjects, and yesterday the BBC announced it will be delivering the biggest push on education in its history, bringing 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household in the country.

Our delivery of laptops and tablets continues apace: we have purchased more than 1 million laptops and tablets and have already delivered more than 560,000 of them to schools and local authorities. With an extra 100,000 being distributed this week alone, by the end of next week, we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for key educational sites. We are grateful to EE, 3, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile, O2 and Vodafone for supporting this offer. We have also been delivering 4G routers to families who need to access the internet.

Another area where we have learnt lessons is exams. Last year, all four nations of the United Kingdom found that their arrangements for awarding grades did not deliver what they needed, with the painful impact felt by students and their parents. Although exams are the fairest way we have of assessing what a student knows, the impact of the pandemic means that it is not possible to have these exams this year. I can confirm that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not go ahead this summer.

This year, we will put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms. My Department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options. While the details will need to be fine-tuned in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching representative organisations, I can confirm now that I wish to use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure that these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country.

I know that students and staff have worked hard to prepare for the January exams and assessments of vocational and technical qualifications, and we want to allow schools and colleges to continue these assessments where they judge it is right to do so. No college should feel pressured to offer these, and we will ensure that all students are able to progress fairly, just as we will with VTQs in the summer.

I know that, understandably, there is concern about free school meals. We will provide extra funding to support schools to provide food parcels or meals to eligible children. Where schools cannot offer food parcels or use local solutions, we will ensure that a national voucher scheme is in place, so that every eligible child can access free school meals while their school remains closed.

Finally, I would like to turn to our programme of testing for the virus. There has been a brilliant, concerted effort in secondary schools and colleges to deliver testing for the start of this term, and none of the work done to roll that out is going to be wasted. Regular testing will take place of staff and students in school and in due course help us to reopen schools as soon as possible. Testing is going to be the centre of our plans to send children back to school, back to the classroom and back to college as soon as possible.

I never wanted to be in a position where we had to close schools again.[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.] Schools should always have their gates open, welcoming children and being at the heart of their community. The moment that the virus permits, all our children will be back in school with their teachers and friends. But until then we have put in place the measures we need to make sure that they continue to progress. For that reason, I commend this statement to the House.

A happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by paying tribute to the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, Gareth Young, who tragically died shortly before Christmas? I am sure the House will join me in sending condolences to his loved ones and to his friends and colleagues in the union.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it is disappointing that he did not make a new year’s resolution to avoid U-turns or chronic incompetence. Once again, where the Secretary of State goes, chaos and confusion follow, and it is children, families, and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence. I can suggest a new year’s resolution for the Secretary of State: that he at least start answering my questions.

Every pupil who is not in school must be able to access education. We must do everything we can to safeguard learning throughout this lockdown. I pay tribute to everyone who has made it possible to keep pupils learning online—the incredible leaders, teachers and support staff in schools and colleges, and those such as Oak and the BBC who are doing a huge amount to make learning accessible.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on digital devices, and I am glad he has listened to Labour and to the charities across the country that called for zero rating of educational sites, but Ofqual estimates that up to 1.78 million children do not have access to a device. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, under his plans, every child who needs a device will have one as soon as possible and that every one of those children will be able to learn remotely? May I also repeat the question the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister earlier: will the welcome data deal done with mobile providers take effect immediately?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on free school meals, and I hope he can guarantee that every child eligible for this support is already receiving it. If not, can he assure me that they will do so within days?

Months ago, the Education Secretary gave a cast-iron commitment that exams would go ahead. At that moment, we should have known they were doomed to be cancelled. I wanted exams to go ahead fairly, but I was always clear that there must be a plan B if that was not possible. For months, there was no sign of any such plan, although the risk that exams could not happen has always been entirely predictable. The Secretary of State says he will be providing support to teachers to award grades. Can he tell me when they will receive that support and what form it will take, and can he confirm that it will be available in all schools? Can he tell me exactly what will be done to ensure that all grades are fair and consistent and support pupils to move on in their education or employment?

I heard what the Secretary of State said about technical and vocational exams, but frankly he is failing to show leadership on the exams taking place in January, and he is simply leaving it to schools and colleges to decide what they should do in these difficult circumstances. Will he now do the right thing and cancel this week’s BTEC exams, as parents, colleges and the Association of Colleges are calling for?

Staff in every part of our education system have faced a hugely challenging job and done extraordinary things to keep children safe and educated throughout the pandemic. Too often, though, the Secretary of State has refused to listen to their concerns or engage meaningfully with the expertise of professionals on the frontline. He can start to make it up to them today. Is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom? Does he believe that they should be prioritised for vaccination to keep them safe and to allow schools and colleges to reopen?

Early years settings remain open to all children, but the Secretary of State has failed to explain how this will be safe for staff and families, so can he tell us what scientific advice he has received that made him think that they will be safe, and can he honestly say that he is following the science? Whether providers are open or closed, will he finally reconsider the unjustifiable decision to move early years funding in line with current occupancy, which will push tens of thousands of providers to the brink of collapse?

Finally, I turn to the return of schools in the months ahead. The decision to close them is not one taken easily or lightly, and although it is the right thing to do to control the virus and save lives, it has huge consequences for children’s learning and development. That is why Labour has always said that schools should be the last thing to close and the first to reopen. Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not guarantee that children would be back in school before the summer. Can the Secretary of State tell us when he expects children to be safely back in the classroom?

At every stage of the pandemic, young people have been an afterthought for the Government, and now we are back where we were nine months ago, with schools closed and exams cancelled. There is time to act, but the Secretary of State must act now to ensure that all pupils can learn remotely, that families are supported and that the most vulnerable are safeguarded.

I would very much like to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Gareth. I had the great privilege of working with Gareth during his time as deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, as well as with his colleagues there. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with his family and with his friends and colleagues.

The hon. Lady raises a number of very important points, including the roll-out of digital devices and our commitment to deliver 1 million digital devices across the country. We will be getting three quarters of a million of those devices out by the end of next week, supporting schools in delivering the full allocation of devices that they need and looking at how we can go further. It has been a great privilege to work with those brilliant teachers, those inspiring leaders, and to help fund and support them in setting up the Oak National Academy—a brilliant online school that is being viewed not just right across this country, but right across the world, for its quality of teaching. We want to see that used more and more as a vital teaching resource.

The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about free school meals and how important this is for every one of our constituents. That is why we are putting the funding and support in place. There are many parts of the country where it will be best for schools to deliver those free school meals themselves, and they want to do that, but that will not be the case in other parts of the country where schools will want to do it as part of the national voucher scheme. That is why we will be standing up that scheme over the next few days and making sure that schools are not out of pocket and, most importantly of all, that children and families are supported at this incredibly difficult time.

The hon. Lady asks whether there will be training and guidance for teachers across the country as we move to teacher-assessed grades, and I can absolutely confirm that that will be the case. We have always been aware that there could be a situation where we would not be in a position to be able to proceed with examinations. We have always had a clear view that the best way of assessing children is through examination, so I will not apologise for being enthusiastic to ensure that we have been able to be in a position to roll out exams, but we do recognise that due to where we are as a result of this pandemic, we have to take a different course, and that is why we are taking the route that we are.

The hon. Lady mentioned technical and vocational qualifications. As she will know, it is very important that we give colleges, schools and all providers, including independent training providers, the necessary flexibility, because a lot of young people will need to complete some of their professional competency qualifications in order to take up work and job opportunities, such as those on electricians’ or gas courses where they have to do a practical assessment in order to be able to get the qualifications to take the work, the jobs and the opportunities. We want to ensure that the door is kept open for them. That is why we have taken the decision to give providers the discretion, because they will be the ones who best and most accurately understand the needs of their students and those who possibly need these qualifications to be able to progress into a job that they would not be able to do if they did not have that option.

On vaccination, the Government have already set out the important need to vaccinate those who are most likely to be hospitalised if they catch this disease, and not just hospitalised but most at risk of death. Like the hon. Lady, and like everyone in the education community, I very much want to see the vaccination of all those who are tirelessly, every single day through the week and every week, keeping schools open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children, when schools are fully reopened again, but coupled with this is a really important step forward, the mass testing programme that we have already started rolling out in schools. The mass testing programme in schools will be one of the largest testing programmes that this country has ever seen. It is ready to go—ready to be implemented—and it will be an important plank in ensuring that we can get schools opened at the earliest possible opportunity.

It will not surprise the hon. Lady that we listen to the best scientific and public health advice in making the decision to keep early years open. We all have a clear understanding of how important early years education is for every child. As I have always said, I will do everything I can to keep every educational establishment open if that is possible and if it is the right thing to do. When we were given the health advice that we could be in a position to keep early years open, which is so important not just for those children themselves but for families, I felt that that was the right decision to take.

I do not want to see any school closed for a moment longer than it has to be. That is why, in June, we all worked so hard and fought so hard to ensure that schools opened right across the country for primary years. That is why, during June, we did so much to ensure that years 10 and 12 were able to return to school at the earliest possible opportunity. That is why, in September, we saw the opening of schools right across the country and all children being able to return to school.

I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I will not let schools be closed for a moment longer than they need to be. I will do everything I can to ensure that every school is open, so that children are able to benefit from the brilliant teaching that goes on in so many of our primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, because I know that is the best place for children. That is what I want for my children, I know that is what Members want for their children, but most importantly, that is what we want for our nation’s children. That is why I will give everything in order to ensure that schools are the first things to be opened in every instance, because that is what is best for every one of our children.

I strongly welcome the Government’s laptop scheme, but we know that there will still be possibly hundreds of thousands of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those students who just do not have an internet connection or computers at home will be able to go to school alongside children of critical workers? Will he also confirm that any centre-assessed grade system will not only maintain standards but provide a level playing field for disadvantaged children and have a fair appeals process? Will he ensure that there are independent assessors—perhaps retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors—to provide a check and balance for each assessed grade awarded?

Finally, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about wanting to open schools again, and I know that he believes that strongly. Will he do everything possible to ensure that teachers and support staff are given priority for vaccination alongside NHS workers, so that we can get our schools open again sooner rather than later?

The reason we are rolling out and expanding our devices package is that we realise how important it is for all children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the previous situation where schools had to be closed, during the months of March, April and May, children who did not have access to digital devices were able to access education in school, and I can confirm that we are issuing the same standard and the same guidance today.[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 3MC.]

On disadvantaged children and the centre-assessed grades and teacher assessment, we will do everything we can to ensure that children are not left behind due to either their background or the community in which they have grown up and are learning. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and his Committee and taking their advice on any additional actions that we need to undertake to ensure fairness. I will certainly take on board his ideas and thinking about bringing in volunteers and people who want to support education, and about ensuring that teacher assessment is fair and robust and that it maintains standards and, most importantly, fairness for the children who are taking those qualifications.

We should not, of course, be surprised at this latest U-turn on schools. Any student teacher knows that planning is a key skill, but it is one that the Secretary of State has yet to master. His decisions have been made in a reactionary and last-minute manner. Schools in England have predictably gone from being open, with threats of legal action if they are closed, to being snapped shut in an instant, giving parents no time to put in place arrangements.

Let me say to all Members that we need to be careful about this narrative that children are falling behind. They are falling behind only on an external scale that we have defined for them. We cannot use the same metrics this year as we have before. Much as we all want schools to be open, young people are learning other skills too. That said, it is good to hear that the BBC is producing educational resources. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether there will be resources available for the Scottish curriculum at national 5, higher and advanced higher level?

Teachers are fed up with politicians paying tribute to them one minute and sending them into unsafe environments the next. The risk posed to children in school is small—we have evidence for that—but as the Prime Minister said earlier, pupils can act as vectors, and let us be clear that if a member of staff in a school catches covid, there is increased strain on the remaining staff, so it should not be only high-risk staff who are vaccinated. Before we talk about opening schools, we need a clear position on vaccinations for teachers and school staff. The First Minister has committed to look at that. The Secretary of State has said that he will do everything he can to ensure that schools open, so will he ensure that teachers are a priority for vaccination so that schools can open with confidence?

Finally, there are many students who are now learning at home completely and are not going to return to university after Christmas. They still have to pay for university accommodation. What support will the Secretary of State look at giving to those young people who have to pay out in that manner?

It was interesting to listen to the hon. Lady’s comments about students, which are probably indicative of some of the challenges in the Scottish education system, given that it has fallen down the rankings of the programme for international student assessment. It is really important that we support children so that they can learn. It is really important that we do everything we can to ensure that children are in a position to learn about maths, English, the sciences and the arts. It seems indicative in what she was saying that the Scottish National party is not very interested in making sure that children benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum.

I would be happy to contact the director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation on the matters that the hon. Lady raised, and I will write to her with details on that. It is always a privilege to work with colleagues across all nations of the United Kingdom, and it is really important that we share what works well and what works best. I would always be happy to work with her. We have funded extensively the Oak National Academy, which has an incredibly rich curriculum resource, and I notice from the latest figures that it is used by a lot of students in Scotland as well as in England. I would be very happy to share some of the work that we are doing to help to support students in Scotland as well as students in England.

I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. The economic recovery will be skills based, and the Government have rightly placed much emphasis on the importance of BTECs. However, there is worry, confusion and uncertainty in colleges and schools. Many have cancelled this month’s exams, but others have not. They should not have been placed in a position of having to make their own choice as to whether to go ahead with exams. The Government should have shown clear leadership so that all students across the country were in the same situation. Will the Secretary of State work with Ofqual, the exam boards and the Association of Colleges to put in place as quickly as possible new arrangements that will provide students and teachers with certainty, clarity and confidence?

As my hon. Friend will have heard in my statement, that is exactly what I have said we would do. For clarity, there are many colleges that know for their students’ future prospects they need to complete assessments this month if those students are to be able access work and employment opportunities. So no, I am not going to go down the route that my hon. Friend suggested of taking that opportunity potentially to access work and other opportunities away from them, because I do not believe that that would be right for those children.

Teachers and school staff have put themselves at enormous risk during the pandemic to keep schools open. Now that the Prime Minister has accepted that schools are the epicentre of high community covid transmission, it is essential that the Government give teachers and school staff the priority access to covid vaccination that they deserve. Will the Secretary of State look at adding them to category 7, as that would make teachers and school staff a top priority for vaccinations after those who are 65 and over, all those who are clinically vulnerable, and our NHS and social care staff?

At every stage, we have put the safety of students, pupils, teachers and the whole workforce—and including the whole community—at the heart of everything we have done. All the evidence shows that the work, the precautions and the measures that have been put in place mean that schools have been able to operate safely and well. We will constantly work with the whole sector to ensure that every measure is undertaken so that that continues. That is why we are ready to roll out a mass testing programme, delivering millions of tests right across the board. That will happen in schools as they welcome the children of critical workers as well as vulnerable children into them. When schools fully return and can welcome all children back, the testing regime will be at the centre of that return.

I understand why GCSEs and A-levels have been cancelled and I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that the substitute system will be robust and fair. What can he do to confirm for the young people of Hinckley and Bosworth that students will be rewarded for how they perform, that they are not disadvantaged by the school they go to and that the teachers who conduct the assessments have buy-in and ownership of what they are doing in the current situation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our great advantage is that we have the opportunity and the time to roll out extensive training, guidance and support for those teachers making that assessment, to ensure that it is accurate and fair and reflects children’s abilities. We will undertake that with schools over the coming months. We endeavour to ensure that teachers and all those who work in the education system are supported in my hon. Friend’s constituency as they are throughout the country.

It was irresponsible of the Government to announce the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams and to say nothing about BTEC exams, with no details of an alternative plan being agreed. Students and their families in Luton South have already suffered greatly over the past nine months and are deeply anxious about the continued uncertainty that has been created. Many students have contacted me to say that they are suffering negative impacts on their mental health as a result. What plans has the Secretary of State to provide additional mental health support for our children and young people?

Of course one of the great advantages of schools being back all the way through the latter half of last year is that teachers and those working in schools have been in the best possible place to assess and work with children and to have the best understanding of their needs and some of their problems, including mental health challenges. We will work with the education sector to support them. We have already taken several actions to support schools and education settings with children who have suffered mental health problems as a result of covid and of being out of school. We will continue to do that and step up those measures in the coming months.

I thank the Secretary of State not just for his statement but for the huge effort he must be putting in to try to balance conflicting priorities. As a father to an A-level student who was hoping to take her exams this year, I can relate to the anxiety that so many young people and their parents must feel in Dudley North and across the country due to the uncertainty of the situation. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will make every effort to remove that uncertainty by bringing clarity at the earliest opportunity, so that students can better focus on their studies and teaching staff on the best approach to support them?

As my own daughter was due take her GCSE exams later this year, I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much hope that this statement has given a clear sense of certainty and direction. We will be following this up with further detailed consultation: Ofqual will be leading a two-week consultation period, which will be launched next week. It is very important that we get feedback from the sector to ensure that the details of this policy are properly understood, and work best not just for schools and colleges but, most importantly, for those who are receiving the grades.

Given that the company Computacenter, which was awarded the £96 million contract with no competition, failed to deliver all the laptop kits to vulnerable children in the first lockdown, why is the Secretary of State sticking with Tory party donors from that company this time?

I pay tribute to Computacenter, which has done an amazing job of distributing hundreds of thousands of devices right across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we did a direct award on the first contract, as Computacenter was one of the few businesses that was in a position to be able to assist us at that time. Since then, tenders have gone out and Computacenter has won those tenders through fair competition.

Some North Yorkshire schools are operating a full, formal timetable, with checks and balances including roll calls and marking, but some schools are not. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all schools should use this kind of best practice to ensure that students work as hard and as effectively remotely as they do when they physically attend school?

As a former North Yorkshire County councillor and former member of the education committee of North Yorkshire County Council, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that we keep as much formal education in place as possible. Schools have moved forwards in leaps and bounds in what they are able to offer, but we recognise that there has been variability. That is why we have taken the actions that we have, including the actions that we will take with Ofsted, to ensure that good, high-quality remote education is delivered in all our schools, right across the country.

I would like to place on record my thanks to the National Education Union and to Unison for the work that they have been doing to keep school staff and pupils safe. In my constituency of Liverpool, Wavertree, I have been inundated with inquiries from worried parents and nursery staff about nurseries remaining open, and the risk that that poses, particularly when elderly grandparents, as part of support bubbles, are often used to pick up children. I am afraid that the narrative from the Secretary of State that this group is the least at risk is not enough and does not instil confidence. Will he fully explain to my constituents why nurseries and early years settings are not closing, with the exception of providing services to the children of key workers?

Early evidence from SAGE has shown that early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rates than primary schools, which in turn had a smaller relative impact than secondary schools; that is why the decision was taken. The hon. Lady mentions the National Education Union. I thank the National Education Union and Unison for recognising that the action they took and the advice that gave to their members on Sunday was incorrect, and for withdrawing that advice. It was the wrong advice, and I am glad that they have reflected on it and recognised that it was the wrong advice.

Ministers will know how bitterly disappointed I was when schools were so abruptly closed, because of the impact on mental health, the attainment gap and safeguarding. To give certainty and to enable schools to plan ahead, will the Secretary of State make the February half-term the default target date for return, barring any new crisis? And for those schools remaining open for key workers and vulnerable children, can we make sure that this time they are not turning away children on an education, health and care plan, in particular, on the basis that schools could not safely look after them? I am already hearing complaints from parents that their children who are entitled to attend are being placed on waiting lists.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that children on an EHC plan are entitled to and should be allowed into school and receive the care and support that school provides to those incredibly important children, so I absolutely, categorically make that totally clear to all schools and all colleges as well. I would like to see schools open tomorrow, as he will know. I never want to see schools in a position where they are not able to welcome children, but we have had to take this incredibly difficult decision. I want to see all schools opening on 22 February, but we obviously do have to take into account the scientific and health advice. Certainly, from a Department and a schooling point of view, every one of us is working towards welcoming all children back on 22 February, but we obviously continue to have to listen to the advice of both the scientific and public health community as to how we continue to beat this virus.

The Secretary of State has made a timely decision to scrap GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels, and I very much hope that we can avoid the heartache that some of my constituents suffered last year when their algorithm-adjusted grades caused them to miss out on university places they had worked so hard for. This year, since exams are not being sat or needing to be marked, there is no need to delay the announcement of grades until August. An earlier announcement will help students and parents to plan their next steps and universities to manage a fair admissions process, and it will leave time for appeals and resits, so will the Secretary of State, in his discussions with Ofqual, consider bringing forward the date on which assessment grades are released?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and it is something that I have already raised in discussions with Ofqual. We obviously have to make that judgment call in line with the whole system. We do not want the whole system of awarding to be dictated by the date when youngsters get their grades, but it will be one of those issues that is in active consideration, because, as she says, it gives students more time if there is a need for appeals, and it also gives them more time to make the best choices for them and their future.

The Secretary of State should know the incredible dedication and self-sacrifice shown by teachers and staff throughout Romford and Havering since the start of this pandemic. Their determination to reorganise the schools to keep everyone safe and to continue to provide the highest standard of education must be commended, but with schools now closing as part of the lockdown, they will have to do everything they can to move classes for the majority of students online to minimise the impact on their education. However, as in-person teaching will still be going ahead for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, will my right hon. Friend please clarify whether only one parent or both need to be critical workers in order for their children to continue to attend school in person?

I very much join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to not just the teachers in Romford, but all those support staff who open up the schools, welcome the children and are such an important part of the fabric of that school community. In answer directly to his question, if one parent is a critical worker, it is deemed that they would have access to that school place for their child.

Many of my university student constituents have contacted me because they are desperately worried about the impact that covid restrictions are having on their learning, research, educational success, future careers, finances and mental health and wellbeing. Does the Secretary of State believe it is fair for them to continue to pay full fees and full rent when they are not receiving the university experience they expected, and what will he do to support students, especially those facing financial hardship?

The hon. Lady will probably be aware that just before Christmas, the Government announced additional support for university students, with an extra package to help those youngsters who are most vulnerable. We will continue to work with the sector to look at how best we can support students and the sector as a whole.

I cannot hide my disappointment and sadness to see school gates closed to so many students from across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Remote learning has many challenges, from unsuitable learning environments to no online connectivity and not having the necessary digital devices. Will my right hon. Friend continue discussions with me and the Minister for School Standards to get textbooks distributed to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they do not fall victim to the digital divide while learning remotely?

I have asked officials to organise a meeting between my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and me next week to discuss this. We all recognise what an important role textbooks play in helping and supporting learning, and there has been some brilliant work and investment in producing exceptionally high-quality material. I look forward to meeting him next week to discuss how we can get textbooks distributed, especially to some of the most disadvantaged communities across our country.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s U-turn on GCSEs and A-levels, late though it was, adding to the pressure on schools and teachers. I am sorry that his approach on BTECs appears to be an afterthought and an abdication of responsibility, but I want to ask him about primary assessments. Does he accept that proceeding with SATs this year would place an unnecessary and pointless burden on schools, and will he take action to cancel this year’s tests and to do so in good time?

I always enjoyed working with the hon. Member, in terms of the work we did with the Motor Neurone Disease Association over a number of years. He often speaks a lot of good sense—just, sadly, in the wrong party. I can confirm that we will not be proceeding with SATs this year. We recognise that that would be an additional burden on schools, and it is very important that we are focused on welcoming students back into the classroom at the earliest opportunity.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the work being done to roll out online learning, but for a significant proportion of my constituents there is a small practical problem: up to 13% of households either have very slow broadband or no access to it at all, and mobile data is non-existent in many villages. What practical support can he offer pupils living in such households, competing against other members of the household and trying to work or learn with no or little broadband?

This is an incredibly challenging problem for many people living in rural communities. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what further measures we could take. I am beginning to think about some of the additional resource of textbooks and other resources that can maybe be made available to families and communities that have these acute problems, where it may not be something we can work around in terms of a technical solution. There may be other routes forward, but I will ask my Department to organise swiftly a meeting between him and me to discuss this issue and any other educational issues in his constituency.

The pandemic has highlighted the injustice of tuition fees. Students are incurring on average £57,000-worth of debt to be isolated in university halls and to be restricted to online learning, and beyond that, education must be a universal right, not a costly privilege. The last decade of extortionate tuition fees has saddled young people with debt, deterred working-class people from gaining higher education and reduced our universities to profit-seeking businesses. Will the Government take this opportunity to support students by refunding rents, scrapping tuition fees and cancelling student debt for good?

The statistics bear out something rather different from what the hon. Lady said. We have seen a massive expansion of the university sector, with more young people going to university than ever before. If she took the time to look at the statistics and the facts, as opposed to not basing her question on the statistics or facts, she would discover that more children from the most disadvantaged families are going to university—often they are the first from that family—than ever before. That is something that this party should feel incredibly proud of, and I would like to see even more youngsters from the most deprived backgrounds going to some of the best universities in the country.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has described the covid-19 pandemic as the greatest threat to mental health

“since the second world war”.

As chair of the health all-party parliamentary group, I have been receiving concerned emails from parents across the United Kingdom regarding mental health. Given that children have experienced isolation and trauma—many have experienced bereavement—will the Secretary of State now take the opportunity to announce ring-fenced funding for a much-needed mental health and wellbeing strategy for children?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising such an incredibly important point, and it would be great to have an opportunity to meet her and other members of the all-party parliamentary group to discuss some of the wider issues that we face not only in schools in England, but in schools across the whole of the United Kingdom. There have been various different initiatives, some for the higher education sector that were UK-wide, and which our universities have done so much on, but also some initiatives in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would be really good to have a four-nations approach to how we support young people with the real challenges of mental health. I look forward to having that discussion with her, because I know she feels passionately about this issue, as so many Members of this House do. It is very much a cross-party issue, and I very much hope we can find some cross-party solutions on how we can best support our young people.

Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask my right hon. Friend about early learning? The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) has already raised the point, but I would rather like my right hon. Friend to explain why in Bromley, early learning centres—they are semi-schools really—are still open. They have a real problem, because all of them are privatised, and there would be a certain loss of income, which would be a problem. Can I ask him—not that I dispute what he is going to say—for an explanation as to why these places are open when primary schools are not?

I assure my hon. Friend that at every stage we will go above and beyond to keep education settings open. The Prime Minister has many times outlined the Government’s commitment to and priority for education so, if we can, we will keep a sector of the education system open, because not only do the children who are in accrue enormous benefits—whether it is in a nursery, an early years setting, or a classroom in a primary or secondary school—but it is also incredibly important for parents and families, who often rely on those settings and schools to support them. When the advice came through—just to reiterate it—that the early evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies showed that early years provision had a much smaller relative impact on transmission rates than primary schools, which, again, have a much lower relative transmission impact than secondary schools, we felt that that was the right thing to do. Yes, it is about supporting the children, but it is also about supporting the families.

We all want children back in school as soon as possible, so why do we not work together to make that happen? With that in mind, will the Secretary of State tell me when he last met teachers’ unions and what practical steps he agreed with them that the Department would take—for example, acquiring more space for schools, so that children and teachers can spread out? What steps did he agree that could make schools even safer so that we can get children back in school as quickly as possible?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Where there is a shared commitment to see schools open, it is important to work together. I meet lots of organisations, including trade unions, on a very regular basis. Nowadays, I am afraid, we do not get to meet physically, and it is all online, but we have regular meetings. Only in the past week, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of union leaders.

Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone else in the House. For those students due to have sat GCSEs, and AS and A-levels later this year, we have had to make the difficult decision to cancel the exams, which will without doubt cause a great deal of anxiety. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that his Department will make every effort to provide those students with the vital clarity that they will need in the weeks ahead?

My hon. Friend has been a great champion, defending his schools and doing everything he can to ensure that parents in his constituency benefit from being able to have access to their schools, but he makes an important point about clarity. I hope that what we have set out today brings a lot of clarity. The further detailed consultation that Ofqual will roll out in the early part of next week will be the next stage of consulting schools on the next steps. We recognise that, when that is fully completed, it is really important that we support schools, the teaching profession, and colleges and lecturers in those next steps and the awarding of grades in the summer for A-levels, GCSEs, and other vocational and technical qualifications.

Despite serious safety concerns, we were told yesterday that BTECs were still going ahead, only to be told late last night that it was simply up to schools and colleges to decide whether it was safe. The Secretary of State ignored education unions and organisations when they repeatedly told him that it was not safe to reopen schools, colleges and nurseries on Monday, and nurseries are still open in full today, despite widespread anger and disbelief in the sector and without any robust scientific evidence from the Secretary of State that nurseries will not act as a vector for transmission of the virus.

Safety is the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Up to one in 50 people now have the virus, and the number continues to climb. Will he now listen to education unions and organisations, cancel BTEC exams, urgently take the same safety approach on nurseries as he has done with schools, and provide upgraded risk assessment guidance and vaccine access to all settings that are currently open to vulnerable and key worker children?

May I say what a delight it is to have the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) as shadow Secretary of State? At least she seems to be enthusiastic about having children in schools, colleges and other settings, unlike the previous shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).

At every stage—I think the hon. Lady understands this—we have put the safety and security of children and the workforce at the very heart of what we do. As the chief medical officers not just of England, but of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have said, the best place for children is in school, but we have had to take unprecedented action as a result of the advice from the chief medical officer for England that the nation had to move to covid alert level 5. When the decision was taken on Monday to move to covid alert level 5, it was right that additional actions were taken, as reluctant as I was to see us in that position.

I think it is a little unfair of the hon. Lady to imply that the safety and security of staff and children are not at the heart of all our actions. They are at the heart of all our actions, but we know that children benefit from being in school and having the opportunity to sit in front of their teacher in the classroom. That is why Conservative Members have always been so enthusiastic for schools to have children in. I hope that she will eventually become a convert to that idea, as her successor has done.

Last year, the approach to GCSEs and A-levels meant that private candidates, such as home educated children, were unable to obtain a grade. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this year they will be able to do so?

My hon. Friend speaks not just for her constituents, but for many thousands of youngsters right across the country who are worried about this. I have asked Ofqual to take up this issue, to look at it directly and to make sure that there are measures in place so that those students will be in a position to get a grade. I have asked Ofqual to include that as part of the consultation that it will be doing next week. We have already discussed how this can be done, and we believe that it will be possible to do so.

The Secretary of State clearly prefers testing, rather than vaccination, as the means to make sure our teachers and learners will be safe when schools can reopen. The Prime Minister wants that to happen in six or seven weeks’ time. To have an adequate testing regime in every school by that period will require working around the clock in every minute available between now and then. Will the Secretary of State confirm that every school in my constituency has access to the support it needs to make sure that such a regime will be in place in time?

We have already seen the mass distribution of testing kits, and all the equipment that is required, in schools and colleges that take years 7 and above. We will be looking at how we can roll out testing beyond secondary schools into primary settings and earlier years to support staff.

I am as enthusiastic about vaccination as the hon. Gentleman is, but we are very much forward with our programme of mass testing for children, with all secondary schools receiving the initial deliveries. All schools will be getting that level of support in secondary settings, and we are looking at expanding that in primary settings as well. That would include all the schools in his constituency, as well as those in all our constituencies.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State is giving thorough and detailed answers to a great many questions, but we have already taken up considerably more than an hour on this statement. There are still 13 people to participate and I would like to give everyone the chance to ask their question, but I must ask them not to make speeches or statements. Just ask a question, and if it is a short question the Secretary of State will be able to give quite a short answer.

Secretary of State, the future of the country is very much in your hands—the children are our future. I pay tribute to my local schools, who have risen to the challenge and continue to deliver an exemplary education. Closing schools is one thing; what is your plan to open them? What are your criteria? It cannot be to end lockdown having had a devastating effect on children’s mental health. What is your vision and what is your plan for optimising children’s life chances and giving a clear map of the future for children, parents, teachers, universities and employers? What, in your eyes, does good look like?

Order. I did tell the hon. Lady not to make a speech but to ask a question. She has asked several questions, which I am sure the Secretary of State will answer, but I must insist that while we have virtual proceedings in this Chamber, people who participate virtually adhere to the same rules that we adhere to in the Chamber. Nobody calls the Secretary of State “you”. “You” means the Chair; the Secretary of State is the right hon. Gentleman.

I will endeavour to be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to all those who work in schools, colleges and nurseries in Newton Abbot, and I add my thanks for the work that they do. We have been clear that the testing regime is a clear element in opening schools once more. We rely on the pressure that the NHS is currently feeling starting to lift, as that is one of the key reasons we had to take the difficult and unpalatable decision to close schools.

I have been contacted by a distraught young lady from my constituency who works full time and is a private candidate studying for her A-levels. With exams now cancelled, students in standard schooling will have predicted grade assessments from their teachers, but self-taught students have no such thing. Last year, thousands of private A-level candidates went without any grade when their exams were cancelled. Will the Secretary of State work with the exam boards to make provision for self-taught students like my constituent and to do what is necessary to ensure that they are not overlooked and that their money, time and study really do pay off?

I certainly will do that. We have already had those discussions with Ofqual and we will have them, in turn, with exam boards. I refer the hon. Lady to the comments I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey).

As someone who was campaigning to keep schools open until a few days ago, I recognise how difficult these decisions have been for my right hon. Friend. I want to press him on two points. He has made his views on vaccination in schools clear, but I implore him to look again at vaccination in SEN schools, where the line between teaching and caring is very blurred. Secondly, will he review catch-up funding for schools, especially in areas of deprivation, to ensure that it is targeted and that the attainment gap does not widen as a result of this lockdown?

My hon. Friend and I have both championed the importance of keeping all schools open at every stage. I very much thank him for his support. I spy in the distance the Health Secretary, who is progressing slowly to the Chamber. I guarantee that I will make those arguments as forcibly as possible about recognising children and the workforce in special schools, where there is often a crossover between education and care. We will make those arguments, while recognising the broad clinical requirements under which the Department of Health and Social Care has to operate. I will certainly echo those comments to the Health Secretary.

Order. I allowed the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) two questions because I could not get in quickly enough to stop the second one. From now on, one question, no speeches, no statements.

Ofqual suggests that as many as 1.78 million children do not have access to a computer. What the Education Secretary has announced today is just a 10% reduction in those numbers by the end of next week, which will still leave 1.6 million children unable to access a computer. Bridging the digital divide is essential, so when will those 1.6 million children receive their laptops, and when will he address the situation of the 900,000 children who do not have data access?

I know that my right hon. Friend did everything he could to keep schools open, and that he shares my concern for the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of young people now isolated at home. Will he look urgently at the reports of harms being caused to children by social isolation?

Absolutely. It is incredible how social isolation has a real impact on young people. Children miss out on so much from not being at school— not just their teacher’s input but socialisation with friends. I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this and what more we can do to support schools, teachers and the education community to support our children.

Where and when will families be able to find out exactly what free services the mobile operators are providing, and how will the Secretary of State make sure that it is as straightforward as possible to access? Is he making sure that the devolved Governments are fully looped in on this and that they will get any Barnett consequentials of additional spending on laptop and tablet distribution?

We of course always work closely with the devolved Governments. The benefits of the Union are demonstrated in the fact that we are able to work together and at considerable scale to deliver benefits to all parents and children. Any additional spend on anything has Barnett consequentials, which means that, again, Scotland benefits from being in the United Kingdom and the financial support that the whole UK gains from being together.

I know from my own children that a live lesson taught online is much more effective than learning resources being placed online. While teachers always need to be able to use their discretion to take account of specific circumstances, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the default expectation during this lockdown is for live online teaching?

We have already set out really detailed guidance for all schools, setting the expectation levels for all schools and what they provide to pupils. We recognise that there will be a blend in the range of different teaching, but we have set clear expectations and if schools fall below them, parents can take recourse either with the school directly or ultimately through Ofsted.

As students have been advised not to return to university for the foreseeable future, most will be left paying for accommodation that they cannot use. It is clearly unfair that students renting private accommodation will be left thousands of pounds out of pocket, and the Government’s miserly £20 million contribution to the university hardship fund obviously is not enough. Does the Education Secretary agree that the Government have a responsibility to refund students their accommodation costs?

As I have already set out, before Christmas the Government recognised the need to give additional support to students, through the universities. That is why we put the additional financial arrangements in place to support them.

I put on the record my thanks to all the teachers and support workers in Telford. My single question to my right hon. Friend is whether he agrees that just handing out laptops is no substitute for the support and guidance a child receives from a dedicated, committed teacher. Will he do everything in his power to enable teachers to return to school, including considering vaccinations?

I would very much like to add my thanks to all the teachers in Telford, especially as one of my daughters is very privileged to be able to benefit from those teachers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I echo her point that supporting children’s learning is not just about giving them a device; it is about how that device is used and how that child is supported, and the work we have undertaken over the past few months to support that through the Oak National Academy and the resources that are available is an important part of that. In terms of vaccinations and testing, we will always be pushing at the boundaries to maximise that for our education settings right across the country.

The Secretary of State has placed the decision about whether to open maintained nursery schools on governing boards. Will he make public health a priority, and guarantee full funding during this crisis to relieve boards such as the Bedford Nursery Schools Federation of the feeling of being coerced into remaining open to protect their future viability?

We recognise that there are a lot of nursery schools that want to be in a position to open their doors. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers I gave earlier in this session about the reasons why we took that decision.

I thank the Secretary of State for updating the House and answering questions so fully. Could he tell me: if a university student has travelled back to their halls of residence and now is going to receive remote learning, should they stay at university, or should they return home?

We would encourage that university student to stay where they are, in order to be able to conduct their remote learning, although obviously university students who are not doing practical subjects should not have returned to university at this stage.

Students in Bath and across the country feel massively let down. They are paying full tuition fees on top of rent for accommodation that they are not allowed to live in—we have just heard that answer from the Secretary of State. I am aware that this question has been asked several times already this afternoon, but we have not had a proper answer yet, so will the Secretary of State now commit to the rapid implementation of a review of this academic year, with the power to make recommendations for financial compensation?

I share my right hon. Friend’s concern over schools being closed, especially for children in Wealden who do not have access to technology. Can he double confirm that those children without access to tech are now seen as vulnerable, and can immediately access physical education—I mean, attend school—and will not have to jump through hoops to be able to get into school?

I can absolutely confirm that. That was issued in our initial guidance on school closures back in March last year. We have repeated that self-same guidance all the way through where schools have been in an unfortunate position, because we have had to recognise that during the latter stages of last year, there were schools that were closed, and even during that time children who did not have access to that type of education were able to access education settings.[Official Report, 20 January 2021, Vol. 687, c. 4MC.]

In order to allow the safe changeover of colleagues in the Chamber, I will now suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Sittings of the House

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 25),

That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn until 11 January 2021.—(Tom Pursglove.)

Question agreed to.